This is Part I of our weekend in the Olifants River Mountains. Here are the links to the other four post about this trip:
- Part 2: Fabulous views, fragrant fynbos and starry skies
- Part 3: Stone sentinels, abandoned cottages, and a delightful dam
- Part 4: Heat haze, jeep tracks and a full moon braai
- Part 5: The long way home via five mountain passes
Last Friday, we headed north to Pampoen Fontein, a pretty guest farm in the Olifants River mountains just east of the small Swartland town of Porterville. We had rented one of the self-catering cottages on the farm for the weekend.
Our drive took us north along the N7 and across the Western Cape region known as the Swartland, towards the town of Malmesbury. Apparently, it was Jan van Riebeeck, commander of the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope from 1652 to 1662, who had named this area ‘Het Zwarte Land’ (the Black Land). After the rains (or during the winter months), the Renoster Bos (Elytropappus rhinocerotis) that covers (or used to cover) vast swathes of these rolling hills looks grey-black when viewed from a distance (Wikipedia: Swartland). Another possible reason for the name is that, when the fields are ploughed, the soil is a dark, nutrient-rich, almost black colour.
The Swartland is bordered more or less by Malmesbury (in the south), Piketberg (in the north), Darling (in the west), and the Riebeek valley (in the east). For many years, this fertile plain has been called the bread basket of Cape Town: there are golden wheat fields stretching in every direction, as far as the eye can see, with wine, fruit, olive and vegetable farms interspersed among them.
Yes, despite the aridity of this region, there is in fact a Swartland Wine Route, with many excellent wines waiting to be sampled, if you are so inclined. So, if you are tired of the tourists crowding the familiar Stellenbosch Wine Routes, why don’t you head north into the expansive plains and undulating hills of the Swartland instead?
And if you prefer olives to wine, make a note of the dates of the Riebeek Valley Mediterranean Festival (27 to 28 March 2010) and the 10th annual Riebeek Valley Olive Festival (30 April to 2 May 2010).
The quickest route from Cape Town to Pampoen Fontein would have been to travel along the N7 via Malmesbury to Piketberg, and then to cut eastwards on the R44 to Porterville. As we’ve travelled the N7 many, many times on our way to Namibia, however, we decided to take a slightly more scenic detour. Just before Malmesbury, we turned right onto the R46 and drove east towards the Riebeek Valley.
The Kasteelberg was looming up ahead, as we headed eastwards between the wheatfields.
The Riebeek Valley
We soon reached the gently ascending and descending curves of Bothmanskloof Pass, from where we had a beautiful view towards Riebeek-Kasteel, surrounded by lush green vineyards and olive farms. This area was named after Jan van Riebeek, then Governor of the Cape of Good Hope, when an outpost was established here in 1661. At that time, lions, rhino, zebra and wildebeest were still living on the Kasteelberg – though of course they are all gone now.
In recent years, there has been an influx of creative people in the form of artists, writers, painters and artisans, who take pride in restoring the beautiful old buildings in the town to their former glory.
The green colour of the fields here stood in stark contrast to the golden, earthy tones of the wheatfields through which we had just driven.
Pitstop at the Bar Bar Black Sheep
As it was by now definitely time for a treat, preferrably one containing a bit of caffeine, we cruised slowly into the village, until we came to a delightful cluster of rustic looking shops in Short Street. We ambled around, until we found an interesting little restaurant, called – mischievously and intriguingly – the Bar Bar Black Sheep.
I really liked the decor, specifically the eclectic mixture of tables and chairs. It looked as though they had been collected one set of table-plus-chairs at a time. Each table had a brightly colourful tablecloth, and the chairs came with an unusual kind of fluffy pillow containing what I presume could be tiny styrofoam balls. You could fluff them up lightly, and then mould them to your back, to give you support and padding wherever you needed it. 🙂
There was even a wire sculpture of the eponymous sheep nibbling at the flowers.
And what about this quote from Miss Piggy, hey?
Well, that definitely clinched it for us. We settled in for two leisurely cappuccinos, which were served by a very friendly waiter, and felt the cares and stresses of our city life just melting away.
We decided then and there that we would not allow ourselves to be rushed into reaching our destination. The current of time definitely flowed more languorously in the gently undulating hills of the Swartland. It felt good.
By the way, I would also recommend a visit to the facilities, even if just to look at the photos and pictures and the unusual colour scheme. And if you need to linger a bit, you can even practice singing the nursery rhyme Ba-Ba Black Sheep, the tune and words of which are helpfully painted on the wall.
If you’re curious about the history of this place, and what items they have on their menu at the moment, have a look at their website, where you will also find two short videos (one narrated by the chef, Mynhardt Joubert, and the other a clip about the Short Street Fine Food & Wine Market, which takes place every last Saturday of the month).
It’s enough to make one’s mouth water, honestly.
Hermon, Gouda, Saron and Porterville
We returned to the R46 and drove south-eastwards towards the small settlement of Hermon (you can read a little bit about the history of this unassuming little place here).
We didn’t stop here, but turned left onto the R44, which took us northwards past the huge Voëlvlei Dam (about 8 km long, 1.5 km wide). Having been built in 1952, it is fed – albeit only in the rainy season, which is primarily during the winter – by the Little Berg River and other streams from the mountain range above. During the hot summer months, this dam even supplies Cape Town with drinking water! It is very popular among water sports enthusiasts and is the home of the Voëlvlei Yacht Club. The dam is also stocked with bass, carp and trout, which you need a licence to catch. 🙂
Shortly after the dam, we turned left and drove through the village of Gouda, which has nothing to do with Gouda cheese, incidentally. Instead, the name originates from a Khoikhoi word that means ‘antelope’ or ‘honey kloof’ (Drakenstein tourism website). The village lies at the entrance of the Nuwekloof Pass to the Tulbagh valley.
We drove past the turn-off to the small town of Saron, at the foot of the Saronsberg. In 1848, a Rhenish Mission station was established here “to serve the freed slaves and indigenous inhabitants in the area”. The biblical name ‘Saron’ means ‘flats’ or ‘plain’, which is highly appropriate given the surroundings. Furthermore, the missionaries also gave education and medical services to the local community, and developed their skills in various crafts and as artisants (Drakenstein tourism website).
Eventually, we reached the picturesque country town of Porterville at the foot of the Olifants River mountains. Porterville was founded in 1863, when Frederick John Owen, one of the 1820 British Settlers and owner of the farm Pomona, subdivided the farm into plots. The town was named after Sir William Porter, the Attorney General of the Cape at the time. Porterville is a good place to get last minute supplies, as well as to fill up your tank, if you are planning a lengthy foray into the mountains.
A rough road and excited sheep
Just outside Porterville, we continued straight (or as our navigator confusingly instructed us, we “turned right”) along a tarred side road until we reached the turn-off labelled Cardouw/Dasklip Pas.
This turned out to be one of the bumpiest and most corrugated gravel roads we had driven on in a veeeeery long time. The rattling from underneath the car and the jarring of the poor suspension made us clench our teeth in shared agony with the pain our poor VW Jetta was no doubt experiencing. All the good work done by our mechanic during our recent service was undone, as we rattled and bounced and jarred and leapt across the exposed rocks, sharp stones and corrugations.
After crawling along at about 20 kph for a few minutes, we pulled to the side of the road and deflated all four tyres to somewhere around 1.50 bars (instead of the recommended 2.50 bars for a fully loaded car). This eased some of the worst rattling, although our speed still had to be waaaay below what would be a respectable speed for gravel roads. A 4×4 with good suspension would have been nice.
A tip: In case you have to deflate your tyres, it is always useful to carry a tyre-pump in the boot – preferably one of those that you can hook up to your car’s battery to save you exhausting yourself in the midday heat by trying to pump up the tyres manually.
A moment of light comic relief came when we suddenly encountered a flock of sheep being herded along the dirt road ahead of us.
Even though we had slowed down to walking speed, the sheep panicked when they heard us approaching from the rear. The ones at the back collided with the ones in front of them, as they tried to leap over each other in their eagerness to get out of the way, amidst clouds of dust and flurries of anxious baahing. The ones in the middle speeded up, trying to outrun both us and the herd, so that they could move onto the road margin.
A few of the more energetic – or panic-stricken – ones galloped alongside our car for a couple of metres, until they finally realised that we weren’t chasing them after all. Much to our relief, they turned around and trotted back to their herd, which had by now resumed its original formation all the way across the road.
For a while, the dirt road followed the foothills of the Olifants River mountains, giving us time to ooh and aah at their precipitous slopes reaching so dramatically into the bright blue sky. We turned right onto a tarred road, which marked the actual start of the Dasklip Pass, and said a silent thank you to the hard-working road crew who had thoughtfully tarred this section.
Here and there, we saw evidence of recent fires, with blackened trees and boulders on either side of the road. The road zigzagged steeply up the west-facing side of the mountain range.
At one of the zigs, we pulled over to take a panorama shot of the literally breathtaking vista below. In the far distance, straight ahead, lies the town of Piketberg at the foot of the Piketberg mountain range, and towards the far right lie the mountains crossed by the N7 via the Piekenierskloof Pass, with Citrusdal beyond. On the dark green slopes on the right edge of the photo, you may be able to see part of the road we had just ascended.
At the crest of the mountain, a gravel road turned left towards Beaverlac, the well-known camping site, which is located on the Grootfontein farm. In addition to offering camping facilities, they also have self-catering huts and cottages; some of these have no electricity or warm showers, so it is a good idea to check beforehand!
Arriving at Pampoen Fontein
We remained on the larger road, which quickly reverted to a bumpy and corrugated gravel road. This led us more or less along the spine of the mountain, until the cottages of Pampoen Fontein appeared on our left.
(You probably won’t be able to see it on this picture, unless you click on it, but the little wooden cottage in the far distance, almost hidden behind the building in front, was our cottage.)
Following the instructions of Gemma, one of the friendly owners of the farm, we made our way to the manager’s house, where we introduced ourselves to Grita, the manageress. From there we drove down to Lilly Cottage, which would be our oh-so-cosy home-from-home for the next two nights. This is what it looked like from the braai area.
And this is what the braai area looked like from the house.
We thought that this looked so inviting, that we would simply have to have a braai on both nights! Serendipitously, just after we arrived, a truck pulled up outside, and we received two crates of wood, which was definitely enough to last us for the weekend.
We quickly lugged all our stuff down from the car and into the cottage, and had a thorough nose around our new home.
Oh! What an adorable little timber cottage this was!
The loving touch of a creative and artistic spirit was evident in every nook and cranny. It was neat, clean and tidy, and stocked with everything we could possibly need for a weekend away from it all.
It consisted of a downstairs, and an upstairs area. A steep wooden staircase led up to a small loft with two neat and tidy single beds under the windows. You had a lovely view from here to the north.
Downstairs, there was an open plan kitchen, with plenty of working surfaces, and enough cupboards and shelves for all your bits and bobs. It was equipped with a proper four-plate stove with an oven, in case you couldn’t make a braai. There was a fridge with freezer, a toaster and a kettle, handily complete with coffee, tea, sugar and powdered milk. There was all the crockery and cutlery, and pots and pans you could possibly need. There was even, the recycler in me was pleased to see, a quaint enamel pot for organic material that could be added to the compost heap.
The sofa, covered protectively in an orange throw, would soon become a most welcome snuggling-and-reading place! On a little shelf, tucked-away behind the sofa, I even found a pile of magazines and some books. This library worked on the honour principle: If you really wanted to take a book or magazine home with you, you were encouraged to leave one of yours behind. Very fair, no?
We weren’t likely to use the indoor fireplace in the lounge at this time of year, but I suspect that it would be indispensable for those freezing cold winter nights. Next to the fireplace was a basket filled with old newspapers that you could use to light the fire.
At the foot of the wooden staircase stood a wooden table, covered with a very pretty and colourful tablecloth and surrounded by three rustic chairs. A large mirror created a feeling of spaciousness, and someone had placed a vase of fragrant fynbos on the table.
From here, another door led out onto a raised patio, one section of which was covered in green netting, creating some much appreciated shade. Here we also found two loungers, which were most useful for… er… lounging about in the afternoon heat, with an ice-cold drink in one hand, and a good book in the other. 🙂
Yep, that definitely sounded good to me!
Just after we had unpacked all our stuff, and while Richard was preparing a delicious cup of tea to accompany the fresh bread rolls we had brought along from home, someone unexpectedly strolled in through the open door.
I think she must have smelt the milk.
Because she made it abundantly clear that she would appreciate a little saucer full of it. Without delay. Like, right now. If we didn’t mind?
So, being complete suckers for purring felines, and rather bemused by the odd squeaks she emitted instead of the traditional ‘miaow’, we obliged her.
Several times. 🙂
Yes, I do know that cow’s milk isn’t good for cats, but she completely ignored the water we put out for her, and she clearly had a very, very strong thirst for cold milk. So, milk it was. Fortunately, we had brought a large bottle. 🙂
Afterwards, she joined me on the patio, while I lazed about on the lounger in the midday heat, studying the useful information file that Gemma had prepared for her guests. After all, once it had cooled down a little, we wanted to explore Pampoen Fontein farm!